This intriguing Saturday Matinee Prom which took place in the intimate surroundings of Cadogan Hall, was the second in a series devoted to the music of Benjamin Britten. The focus was on some of the composer’s most celebrated chamber music but more importantly, and fascinatingly, setting his works in the context of what his contemporaries were writing as well.
An early work, The Prelude and Fugue (1943), and his final work, Phaedra (1975) bookended the concert which also contained music by Holst, Lennox Berkeley and Michael Tippett. Holst’s famous St Paul’s Suite opened the concert and was given a buoyant performance by the Britten Sinfonia, which was at turns playful, exhilarating and sensuous. This was followed by a real rarity, Berkeley’s Four Poems of St Teresa of Avila (1947), a fifteen minute song cycle composed to texts by the aforementioned saint, which she penned in the sixteenth century. Although the religiosity of both the texts and the highly-perfumed music left me feeling slightly queasy, they were given as good an interpretation as you’re likely to hear from Sarah Connolly, whose utterances were suitably reverential.
During a platform change there was time for conductor Sian Edwards to draw our attention to one of the main differences between Tippett and Britten in that the former composer’s music was technically more challenging than Britten’s – not that you would have realised it as the orchestra dispatched his Fantasia concertante on a Theme of Corelli (1953) with consummate ease, the fiendishly difficult fugues holding no terrors for the players whatsoever. There were notable solo contributions from Jacqueline Shave, Magnus Johnston (vioins) and Caroline Dearnley (cello).
Despite the excellence of everything that had gone before I couldn’t help but feel that they’d saved the best until last. Britten’s final major work, the cantata Phaedra (1975), is a work of searing power. In its short fifteen minutes Britten manages to conjure up a whole gamut of emotions that lesser composers probably couldn’t achieve in an hour. Sarah Connolly has been garnering sensational notices for her performances as Rameau’s Phaedra at Glyndebourne, she totally inhibited the character here and gave a thoroughly absorbing performance that was white-hot in its intensity. Britten’s accomplished writing for string orchestra and percussion cuts straight to the tragedy, and is as uncompromising as it is original. Sian Edwards’ conducting was exemplary, as was the playing of the orchestra. All in all this was an enlightening and absorbing afternoon of music-making of the highest calibre, and proof, if proof were needed, of Britten’s genius.
For further information on these and all BBC Proms click here.